Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Better Second Season To Rome Still Yields A Historic Soap Opera.

The Good: Interesting character development, Generally good acting, Decent effects
The Bad: Plots are somewhat predictable and character interactions are very soap operatic, Rape as entertainment
The Basics: Rome returns to DVD with its final season, a bloodbath that chronicles the rise of Octavian to power set against the friendship of Vorenus and Pullo.

HBO has a reputation for being both daring and entertaining. Indeed, the advantage of the pay-for-programming station is probably in its original programming now far more than in its movies and as a result, at some point one suspects that the cable network will simply become a production house for series' that are produced with the boxed set DVDs in mind. Imagine shows like Carnivale being uninhibited by such things as ratings and being produced with the full seven seasons because the DVD sales were justifying it. Or digital downloads; either way the original programming seems to be the niche that HBO is truly attempting to dominate with.

In such circumstances, one wonders if there would have been more than two seasons of Rome, the historical drama/soap opera set in the turbulent period of Rome's history when some of its most recognizable personas were alive and vying for power. Following on the heels of season one and the events of that season (which are impossible to not mention and do an actual review, so those wanting Roman history and season one to be a complete and pleasant surprise, now's the time to go bake cookies or do something else), Rome - The Complete Second Season arrives on DVD and presents the story of Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar. In order to get the most out of this season, it is pretty much essential to watch Rome - The Complete First Season (click here for my review!), though on DVD each episode features a pretty self-explanatory "Previously On" review clip for those starting with this season.

With Caesar dead, his will becomes a point of controversy when his nephew Octavian is declared to be - in effect - Caesar's son and heir and that the citizens of Rome are all to be given a portion of Caesar's massive fortune. Rome soon splits into three factions: those allied with Octavian who manages to initially outmaneuver Mark Antony for a position as Rome's proconsul, Mark Antony who is offended by the rise of Octavian and spurred on by his lover Atia, and Brutus, who is forced to flee Rome with his allies when Octavian declares Caesar's death a murder and the conspirators who killed him enemies of the state.

Allied with young Octavian is Titus Pullo, the warrior who is now settling into domestic life and is working hard to aid his heartbroken friend Lucius Vorenus. Vorenus, crushed over the suicide of his wife, curses his children and they are kidnaped into slavery, which encourages Vorenus to ally himself with the dark gods and ultimately to allow his bond to Antony to pull him reluctantly away from the path of reason and stability for the Republic that he knows is right. Pullo and Vorenus remain most loyal to one another as those who manipulate and control them push and pull them in other directions, often where they are only able to rely on one another.

Rome - The Complete Second Season is better than the first season in many respects, most notably that there is much less of a soap operatic feeling to the series. Instead of quick, implausible reversals that set up many different plot lines, the period of civil conflict between the three dominant powers in Rome becomes more of a political drama than a pure soap opera. This season is less preoccupied with who is having sex with whom and the use of that to manipulate and turn the plots quickly.

Instead, this season is preoccupied with the arranged marriages and the political influence behind them. So, while Octavian's lieutenant Agrippa clearly loves his sister, Octavia, Octavian uses her to seal the bond between him and Mark Antony. The marriage is a sham as Antony and Octavia are almost immediately having sex with their lovers, Atia and Agrippa, respectfully. Atia's political machinations are motivated still by personal vengeance, but she finds ways to justify it in the name of politics, especially when it comes to her nemesis Servilia.

The series is still jam packed with sex and violence, so those looking for entertainment with that will get a kick out of the sex, nudity, blood and sometimes very graphic (and impressive) on-screen murders that occur. Notable among these is the demise of Cicero, whose departure is actually a pretty impressive effect. As the politics and machinations develop, the two dominant powers, Octavian and Antony, make and break their alliances and the loyalty of Pullo and Vorenus - which at times quite literally transcends the battle lines - becomes a good foil to the carnage among the other characters.

The problematic aspect of all of this comes with the line that is crossed with Rome treating violations as a form of entertainment. Back to back, Rome presents episodes where rape is used as a form of torture or punishment, but it is treated within the context of the series as something that the viewer is expected to be entertained by and that's just sick. When Vorenus is betrayed by one of the thug captains of the Collegium, his men rape his adversary and when Servilia's assassination attempt on Atia goes wrong, Atia has her captured, tortured and violated graphically enough to be disgusting and anything but entertainment. This is not to say that torture cannot be presented in a way that is enlightening or has a message as Star Trek: The Next Generation did with "Chain Of Command, Part II." But Rome uses the most vile instances of rape as entertainment in a way that is more like the argument I made against Apocalypto; that is that watching and finding any entertainment value in such depravities makes us - the viewer - into the new Rome and it debases us. Given the effect on Servilia, there is no genuinely justifiable reason to have what happens occur on screen; viewers would have gotten it without.

In order to understand Rome - The Complete Second Season better, it helps to understand the principle characters in the large cast. The heroes and villains in this season include:

Lucius Vorenus - Traumatized by the loss of his wife, he becomes even more moody and withdrawn. When his children are killed, he goes into mourning and turns to darkness, until Pullo discovers they are alive. Though allied to Antony and his losing army, Vorenus ducks out to rescue his children only to discover that they pretty much hate him. Vorenus is forced, by his bond to Antony, to remain at the leader's side, though he seems quite able and willing to look out for Pullo's personal needs even as distance tears them apart,

Titus Pullo - Married to his love, Eirene, after aiding Vorenus in coming out of his slump, Pullo remains true to his protege Octavian, who relies on his counsel some. Pullo prepares to become a father, though his relations with his slave, Gaia, cause his life to spiral out of control and into tragedy as well,

Octavian - Declared the legal heir to Caesar, he quickly maneuvers to save his life and he raises an army when Antony refuses to release the funds Caesar willed him. Returning to Rome older and wiser, Octavian is quickly names Proconsul and he works to eliminate all of his enemies, which forces him to square off with Antony, who is being manipulated by others,

Mark Antony - Fleeing Rome after Cicero declares him a fraud and a tyrant to the Senate, he raises an army and prepares to eliminate Octavian and then Brutus, only to find himself still easy to manipulate by Atia. When Antony is granted the western realms of the Roman Republic, he returns to Egypt, where he finds himself intrigued by Cleopatra instead of the wife he left back in Rome,

Atia - Almost entirely outmaneuvered by her son, she finds her lover Antony estranged from her and her most loyal torturers, like Timon, unwilling to carry out her brutal wishes any longer. She is crushed by Antony's failure to come back for her, though on some level she discovers that Octavian is the exact man she built him to be,

Servilia - Brutus's mother, she and Atia are blood enemies. Furious over Brutus being driven out by Octavian's decree, Servilia declares war on Atia, which backfires on her in the worst possible way,

Cicero - In the wake of the Senate's assassination of Caesar, he finds himself ready to legislate and refuses to sit still while Antony seizes control. After helping to install Octavian as proconsul, he finds he has been outmaneuvered and he flees to his villa,

Brutus - Plagued by guilt over his part in Caesar's assassination, he flees with others involved when Octavian and the Senate declare them enemies of the state,

and Cleopatra - As Antony comes to power in her realm, her initial coldness to him quickly dissipates for passion and the two begin a romance where she becomes determined to keep dominion over Egypt, at any cost.

The characters are genuinely interesting in this season and Pullo, Vorenus and Octavian especially have compelling character arcs wherein they grow and change over the course of the episodes.

The acting in this season is actually of a consistently high caliber, as well. Of note, it is wonderful to see Zuleikha Robinson - of The Lone Gunmen - getting the juicy role of Gaia. She is able to play cunning and strong quite well and it is more than just the costume differences that differentiate her from her character of Yves on that show. Here she is expressive with a minimal of lines and it is easy to feel empathetic for her character when her relationship with Vorenus is brief, given the performance Robinson has given to insinuate her character's feelings for him.

Octavian is played by both Max Pirkis and Simon Woods in the course of the season as time lapses and an older Octavian is needed. Woods portrays him with a consistent sense of personality and ability as his predecessor. The result is the feeling that the character simply grew up as opposed to being recast.

Much of the season hinges on the performances of Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson, who play Vorenus and Pullo, respectively. McKidd pretty much nailed the quiet, taciturn and somewhat dark character from the very beginning. His portrayal even in some of his earliest scenes in the first season quickly established Vorenus as a darker, more melancholy character and "Season Two" finds him not so much building on that as repeating it and defining is, mastering it.

Stevenson makes up for McKidd's unflinching consistency with his more varied performance of Pullo. Stevenson is able to soften Pullo and present more emotional range as Pullo settles into being a husband and potential father. As Pullo develops from a warrior into a common citizen, Stevenson is given a chance to alter his solid body language and soften it with a performance that presents a man who is more flexible and genuinely loving and Stevenson does that quite well.

Polly Walker, who dominated the first season, is given far less to do as Atia, yet the penultimate scene of the finale gives her a moment to silently emote which is quite incredible. Watching her face and eyes, one can almost hear Servilia's curse ringing through Atia's mind based solely on Walker's performance!

On DVD, Rome - The Complete Second Season looks and sounds good. Each episode is packed with a pop-up text commentary option that points out the historical accuracy (and inaccuracies) of Rome. It is intriguing and makes for interesting viewing. Sadly, the commentary tracks are hardly as interesting. Especially the tracks for the two final episodes, wherein the James Purfoy (Antony) does not seem to have much to say about the episode and producer and historical consultant Bruno Heller and Jonathan Stamp allow much of the commentary track to be filled with dead air. The featurettes on Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian's rise to power, the class differences in Rome and the behind-the-scenes featurette are interesting and fans will get something out of them.

And while the historical drama is good, it's not the great series many want it to be. It lacks a spark that truly sets it apart as phenomenal television. Instead, it is good but seems to underperform based on the potential. For sure the costumes are rich and the level of sex and violence (outside the combination of the two!) is entertaining, but there's no flair to it that makes it something as great and enduring as some other series' that HBO has created.

But it is a better season than the first and it is entertaining, at the very least. If one wants entertainment from the B.C. era, this boxed set can deliver on that. But one wonders how much mileage one is liable to get out of these discs. For me, once was enough and rewatching the episodes with the commentary and/or "All Roads Lead To Rome" text commentary did not enhance the first impression.

For other HBO works, please check out my reviews of:
True Blood Season 1
Six Feet Under


For other television set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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